Vahe Gregorian

Royals fend off Angels’ challenges, come up with improbable extra-inning escape

Kansas City Royals' Alcides Escobar (2) begins to celebrate as Mike Moustakas (8) watches his eleventh inning solo home run leave the park during Friday's ALDS baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on October 3, 2014 at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
Kansas City Royals' Alcides Escobar (2) begins to celebrate as Mike Moustakas (8) watches his eleventh inning solo home run leave the park during Friday's ALDS baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on October 3, 2014 at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. The Kansas City Star

From the first pitch Jason Vargas threw on Thursday night at Angels Stadium, game one of the American League Division Series was a virtual Houdini routine by the Royals.

It was one ridiculous escape after another, each more preposterous than the last.

By night’s end, they could have been bound in chains inside a straitjacket crammed in a bin and tossed in a river … and you could half expect them to bob back up and tread water.

They fended off every threat just long enough to enable the most improbable and perhaps poetic rescue of all: a game-winning home run in the top of the 11th inning by oft-maligned third baseman Mike Moustakas.

Moustakas grew up 58 miles from here in Chatsworth, Calif., and he had played his first big-league game in this stadium and hit his first home run in the majors a day later.

Afterward, he ventured that his fortune here perhaps had something to do with the local waters.

He wasn’t considering drought conditions around the region when he said that, but maybe that made the point all the more apt in his case.

Moustakas had been relegated to Class AAA Omaha earlier this season and has been mired in ridicule the last few years after once being touted as a pillar of the franchise.

He finished the regular season hitting .212, and he largely had retained his place in the lineup because of his defense.

And then, suddenly, there was this sheer magic for Moustakas, who hadn’t hit a home run since Aug. 25.

And for the Royals, who just took a 1-0 lead on the road in a series against the team with the best record in baseball.

But because this is the nature of these Royals, this magnificent moment was delivered both via the roulette wheel that seems to land on a different player or two every game … and in less-than-certain form.

“I was just hoping I had enough on it to get it out,” Moustakas said.

That underscored another reality of this series.

This sort of mayhem is what this is going to continue to be all about.

You wanted playoffs?

You got ’em …

Just not in a safe or emotionally stable way you might have hoped for, with cuddly underdogs whose mere presence here was supposed to be the commemorative breakthrough.

Instead, this series is teeming with 29 years of pent-up emotion and unpredictability that evidently was accumulating while the Royals were dormant doormats.

It was one thing for them to prevail in that bizarre wild-card game on Tuesday, plucking a 9-8 victory in the 12th inning after rallying from a 7-3 deficit entering the bottom of the eighth.

The wild-card was its own entity, of course, and of a distinctly different dimension because of the single-game elimination stakes.

But served up just 48 hours before this agonizing exercise, the games have blurred together with a sort of compound impact:

After all the time you might have spent anticipating this in the 28 years the Royals failed to reach the postseason, as much as you might have thought it might bring you peace and harmony, the Royals are not going to permit any such serenity.

There is no such thing as normal about any of this — not in the setting and not with the inherent makeup of this team.

All season, they have been remarkably streaky, often radically so.

They have such a feeble, fickle offensive game that their margin for error is infinitesimal.

But they also are so built on pitching and defense that maybe in their case it should be Pitching & Defense, entwined in one term.

So it was on Thursday that they were instantly buoyed by Lorenzo Cain’s gravity-mocking, tone-setting catch at the wall.

Then they were kept afloat by last-second stabs of catches by Nori Aoki, some curiously circuitous routes notwithstanding.

“Saved the game for us both times,” said manager Ned Yost, who may have been talking about Cain or Aoki or perhaps just lost count.

Ultimately, the bullpen navigated a high-wire through repeated dilemmas not recommended for the faint of heart.

Again and again, they were on the verge of being bashed open like a piñata.

Again and again, they slinked and slithered and shrugged out of the jeopardy.

On and on and on it went, this fascinating, palpitating encore to the Wild Card Game on Tuesday that seemed like rare drama.

Instead, it was just an appetizer.

“This,” Yost said, “is the type of game that we play.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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